The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

October 27, 2012

Alabama constitution: Vote looms on amending history

(Continued)

But making changes involving segregationist language often is vexingly difficult. The U.S. Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967, for instance. But it wasn't until 2000 that Alabama voters removed the state constitution's ban on interracial marriage. Even then, 40 percent voted to keep the ban.

This time, black groups are leading the opposition to change. The Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama New South Alliance say the change, backed largely by white Republicans with a pro-business approach, looks like a "feel good" change but is not.

Amendment 4 would excise outdated language about poll taxes and separate schools that many consider racist. But the critics say the language being proposed as a substitute undermines funding for public education by reaffirming that there is no right to a public education at taxpayers' expense in Alabama.

"It is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It seems so good but is so bad," said black Democratic Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma, a New South founder.

Alabama's constitution once provided for "a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children." But attitudes changed after the U.S. Supreme Court banned school segregation in 1954. Angry Alabama citizens voted in 1956 to amend the constitution to say there is no right to a public education at taxpayers' expense and that "students shall attend schools provided for their own race." Both changes were meant to thwart integration.

The school segregation language was voided by federal court rulings. A few years later, voting rights legislation negated another provision in Alabama's constitution requiring the payment of poll taxes, which were designed to keep poor blacks from voting.

Supporters of Amendment 4 say retaining the two outdated provisions from an era when African-Americans attended separate schools from whites sends a harmful message. They argue that it could drive off businesses from a state struggling to lower an 8.3 percent unemployment rate that remains above the national average.

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